A gentle knocking at the door from the steward wakes us from what's best described as a sort of sleep. To be fair it was quite smooth, though I'm guessing when they separated the train and split it up into bits the shunter driver took his revenge (either that or there was an earthquake last night) - it was also a little too hot even with the AC turned to zero.
We had preordered breakfast and tea which is brought to the room just as we pass Aviemore. (Breakfast consists of a hearty highland breakfast - we had ordered smoked salmon and eggs as one choice but they have managed to run out - which I suspect is code for forgot to load) - the windows are a little small so its hard appreciate the scenery; something the new trains will correct (along with dbl beds) - however one thing the new train wont have is the ability to pull the doorway windows down and stick your head outside (carefully) into the full blast of cool Scottish air. It's at this point that I notice we are now traveling in the opposite direction to when we left Euston - the engine has been placed on what was the back of the train when we got split up - no wonder I had weird sleep.
Soon we pull gracefully (on time 8:30am) into a slightly damp Inverness station and depart the Caledonian Express - a very good experience all round - I cant imagine how many miles we have now covered in the space of 24 hours since leaving Manchester - but we have not only completed the journey but when you think about it we have arrived for a full day in Inverness - saving the cost of one nights accommodation. The train will now be shunted off into some sidings before it makes the return overnight journey this evening. The route operates every day except Saturdays and is very popular with politicians, actors and lowly tourists - but its the only train you can book a full year in advance at very decent rates - so plan ahead; click here:- We booked direct with them on the Caledonian website.
We are booked into the Royal Highland Hotel for tonight. This used to be called the Station Hotel which presumably didn't sound quite as grand as its new name however its the rather obvious name as it is literally a 2 yard walk from the station platform.
It does have a certain Grande feeling about it though and has tried to retain its Victorian/Edwardian heritage (apparently the staircase was the influence for the Titanic's own). Obviously its way too early to check in, but they are happy to store our small bags for us until we come back later - I suspect they are quite used to people arriving on the sleeper service.
We have a full plan already in place - thanks to the wonders of free wi fi and the internet we know exactly where the bus station is (turn right out of the hotel, then right again after 50 yards), the number of the bus gate (2) we need and the bus number (19) & time that we need to get us to Urqhuart castle and Loch Ness. So in less than half an hour we are on our way on Inverness' local bus service along with every nationality in the world - we are literally the only English speaking tourists on the bus (actually that's not true because of course all the Germans, French, Spanish, Chinese speak perfect English).
The bus operates on a circular route that means every 90mins its ready to pick you up and return you to Inverness. Just perfect timing to explore the ruins, read the history and have coffee in the gift shop/heritage center. A lot of money has been spent here and it shows - its a well designed and presented heritage site and the setting itself is breathtaking.
We are back in town by lunch time and Inverness is not a town to disappoint when it comes to eateries. We already have dinner booked at a small seafood restaurant across the river but for lunch we head for a place we noticed as the bus passed passed by.
The Mustard Seed is a modern bistro restaurant set inside a disused Georgian church with lofty ceilings and balconies along the banks of the river Ness. Its main philosophy is sourcing everything from as near to the town as possible. Every lunch they have a set dining menu of about 5 choices. Its a superb find - the food is simple but inventive. Its obviously a hot ticket in town popular with both tourists and locals. We arrive relatively early at noon but within half an hour the place is so full they are turning people away. After a walk around the town & view the museum we check in to the hotel.
The room, rather like the main entrance foyer and staircase, is a little like a step back in time - but they are a very good size and full of charm with 2 double beds. There's also a huge bathtub - after walking around London all day yesterday and a night on the Caledonian a good soak in the huge tub is a big bonus.
When we first planned this trip we searched for the best place to have dinner in Inverness. It wasn't to hard to find - The Riverhouse. Book way in advance - there are few tables, and it is always full. It's so popular they have to lock the door so guest aren't disturbed by people begging to get a last minute table. It has one basic specialty - local fresh fish and seafood and it does this superbly.
I started with local scallops served in shell and sat on a piece of buttery brioche that was soaking up the juices of the brown shrimp dressing. Jack opted for an Orkney Crab and Crayfish cocktail with a fennel and spicy cocktail dressing. For main I had the Shetland Turbot - cooked to perfection and served with a romesco sauce and pieces of tender octopus whilst Jack had wild sea bass with an Orkney crab and shellfish cream sauce. A cleansing Lemon posset for Jack and an unforgettable if slightly disturbingly pink looking cranachen martini for myself (shot of Tomatin malt whisky, Chambord raspberry liqueur and Grenadine, shaken with ice and cream and topped with toasted oatmeal) - Oh Yes!
Its been a superb trip - a real weekend adventure from North to South or South to North and by the time we returned even a 'there and back again'. We actually returned on the Scotrail Service from Inverness to Glasgow Queen St then changed to the Trans Pennine Service from Glasgow Central back to Manchester Piccadilly - great journeys on their own as we passed through the beautifully sunny and dramatic highlands then on through the lowlands before finally passing through the hills and valleys of the lake district.